COACH J. AND CO.
Why running backs coach Fred Jackson has stayed at Michigan for the past two decades
By Michael Florek
corner behind his desk. An un-hung picture rests gently on a
Jackson and Bo are standing on the field of Michigan Sta-
dium. The picture was taken in 1989, Bo's last year, just before
Jackson and Purdue took on Michigan.
Jackson reaches behind the box and pulls out another
picture. It has a slight yellowish tint to it. It's old but there's
no mistaking who it is. It's Bo standing on the sideline, with
slicked back chestnut hair.
"Look at how young he looked," Jackson says. "You know
what year that is? That's '74."
It was Bo who taught Jackson, a young kid from Louisiana,
what Michigan stood for. It was Bo who brought him here.
After playing quarterback at Jackson State, Jackson came
to Flint, Mich. because of a program that brought minority
educators to the Midwest. Flint Southwestern Athletic direc-
tor Dick Leach hired him as an assistant football coach and
biology teacher. He would coach track and basketball, too.
A year later, Leach's son Rick was in his junior year at
Southwestern and was already one of the top recruits in the
country. Michigan State was all over him. Arizona, Stanford,
UCLA, Colorado and many other major colleges in the nation
"If you don't take
this job, we're never
going to offer you
That included Bo Schembechler and Michigan. Leach was
the perfect fit for any offense, but especially Schembechler's.
He had the speed to run the option and the arm to make the
defense pay for defending it.
Leach hadn't yet made a commitment when Bo turned to
Southwestern's barely-out-of-college assistant coach.
"Are we going to get Leach?"
"Yeah, you'll get him," Jackson told him. "His family is
Michigan. He's Michigan."
Leach signed. A relationship was born. Bo kept coming back
and kept selling his passion for Michigan to Jackson and his
recruits. Players like Gary Lee and Brian Carpenter spurned
the best recruiting efforts of then-Illinois defensive coordina-
tor Lloyd Carr to sign with the Wolverines. Then-Michigan
defensive coordinator Gary Moeller took a liking to Jackson
and began teaching him. Any time Jackson had a question, he
would call Moeller. Gary always answered it.
Barely into his coaching career, Jackson already found his
"I knew this: I always wanted to coach in college football,"
Jackson said. "I wanted to coach at Michigan."
Separated from his first wife, the journey began in 1979
when he became the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
coach and wide receivers coach at Toledo. Three-year-old Fred
Jr. and his older sister Tonya stayed in Flint with their mother.
Thirteen years after Bo Schembechler got that Leach guar-
antee, Jackson was well on his way to achieving his goal. He
was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin when Bo called
Michigan's wide receivers coach had just left. Did Jackson
want the position?
This was Jackson's chance. He could bring everything full
COURTESY OF FRED JACKSON JR
circle, go to place that was sold so well to him and his players.
He could work with the people who taught him, be closer to his
family. But he was the already an offensive coordinator - one
step away fromthe top of the coaching ladder. You don't volun-
tary step down a rung.
Jackson turned it down.
Six years later, Bo was long retired as head coach, but he
never stopped recruiting. After leaving Madison, Jackson
bounced from Navy to South Carolina to Purdue to Vanderbilt.
He was the quarterbacks coach with the Commodores when
Bo called again.
Longtime running backs coach Tirrell Burton has just
retired. Head coach Gary Moeller wanted Jackson to have the
job. This time Bo had leverage.
"If you don't take this job," he told Jackson, "we're never
going to offer you another job."
Fred Jackson Jr. was fed up.
As his dad chased his dream, Fred Jr. was stuck in Flint.
Spending summers throwing the football around wasn't
enough time together. He was going to stay with his dad.
Mom was havingnone of that.
"She wanted me to be with her," Fred Jr. said. "I'm her only
son. I understand now. I didn't understand then."
Those backyard throws and catches would have to suffice
for a few more years. In those days, Fred Jr. was always the
receiver. His dad was the former college quarterback, after
all. Jackson had played at Jackson State, handing the ball off
to Walter Payton during his senior season. The Philadelphia
Eagles gave Jackson a shot, but cut him not long after.
Jackson still had enough pop in his arm to throw the ball
repeatedly to his son as they tried to scrunch their bonding
time into the short summer months before fall camp started
"I didn't talk to him as much, it was either late night when
he got home, or if he could shoot me a quick call during the
"Do you want to be the next Michigan running back?"
It wasn't so much a question as a recruiting pitch.
Fred Jackson was in Double Oak, Texas. Tall, with a mus-
tache fading into his cheeks, at 61 the wrinkles are there, but
only if you look for them. In his deep, booming voice he asked
this question to 17-year old Stephen Hopkins.
Jackson knew how loaded it was. He created its meaning.
Entering his 20th year as Michigan's running backs coach,
Jackson has groomed five of the top-10 career rushing leaders
in school history. His backs have been named All-Big Ten 10
times. He's been responsible for over 35,000 yards rushing.
This is the other part of hisjob - recruiting.
The Wolverines offered Hopkins a scholarship in Febru-
ary of his junior year. Four months later, at Michigan's spring
game, Hopkins officially answered Jackson's question and
"Following the people that have been here already, people
that have already played here, it wasn't reallythat hard," Hop-
kins said before this season.
At a school ripe with history, the mystique of the Michi-
gan running back Jackson had spent his life's work creating
had just landed him another recruit. And unlike most of the
countless other players Jackson has recruited, Hopkins is in
his position group. He gets to mold Hopkins into the player
his mind sees him to be.
It's the perfect intersection of what Fred Jackson does:
coach and recruit. For the past two decades, with four dif-
ferent head coaches, he's done this donning a block 'M' on
his chest, even if it was in his heart long before then. In pro-
fession known for its nomadic ways, Jackson has gone from
Tyrone Wheatley to Mike Hart, finding and molding the next
great Michigan running back.
"Coaching with Fred and watching him develop backs and
how his kids play on a daily, weekly basis, there's no better
running backs coach in the country," Michigan coach Brady
If his coaching allows him to survive, his recruiting makes
Logic says with a resume like that, Jackson shouldn't be a
running backs coach. The coaching ladder says the best posi-
tion coaches become coordinators. The best coordinators
become head coaches. The ladder used to matter to Jackson.
He spent most of his career running across the country, try-
ing to finda way to the next rung.
Now, it doesn't mean much. Jackson's set it aside for a
peaceful house and a chance to catch a few more Pop Warner
Why hasn't he left? The answer begins with a quarterback
from Baton Rouge becoming'Coach J.' It ends with 'Pops.'
Twenty years later, Fred Jackson hasn't fully moved into
his office. Papers are scattered on an end table in the back
(BOTTOM) COURTESY OF MICHIGAN ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
Running backs coach Fred Jackson has coached five All-Big Ten run-
ning backs in his 20 years at Michigan.
day or something," Fred Jr. said.
During those fleeting moments in June and July, it wasn't
any different from a typical father-son relationship. As far as
football, Jackson had some advice.
"Always be a receiver," he would say. "If you want a schol-
arship or if you want play at the next level in the pros, they
take more receivers than they do quarterbacks."
But as Fred Jr. entered high school, he had no choice. His
coach had heard of his dad's successes. Jackson was a quar-
terback. Jackson's son was going to be a quarterback. It didn't
matter that Fred was 6-foot and barely 155 pounds.
Jackson, well into his coaching career at this point, knew
how to make up for some of the lack in size. He started feed-
ing his son quarterback playbooks. He provided him with
inspirational quotes and related everything to football.
Knowledge makes you better.
With the help of future Michigan cornerback Andre
Weathers, Fred Jr. took the 1994 Flint Central Indians to two
See COACH J, Page 6
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4 1 FootballSaturday - September 17, 2011